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What America can learn from India’s war on TikTok Banning an app won't protect Americans

India loved TikTok. Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

India loved TikTok. Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images


May 7, 2024   5 mins

By 2020, Veer Sharma had become a local celebrity in his hometown Indore in central India. Over two years, he had built a following of seven million by posting short comedy skits on TikTok, earning both fame and fortune. “I had fans waiting outside my home — everyone wanted to click selfies with me,” he says. “The money changed our lifestyle completely. I started taking flights, travelling internationally and collaborating with celebrities.”

But on 29 June 2020, Sharma lost his livelihood overnight — along with several thousand other content creators — when the Indian government announced it was banning 59 Chinese apps including TikTok. At that point the app had roughly 200 million users in India, making it the largest market outside of China. “When the ban was announced, I just spent the whole day locked up in my room and crying,” Sharma says. “I didn’t leave home for a month and didn’t know what to do.” 

In theory, the measure was a response to the perceived Chinese threat to India’s cyber security. The Indian government’s press release spoke of the “misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data”. This was an impingement on the “the sovereignty and integrity of India” and, as a result, required “emergency measures”. While there was no evidence that Beijing was actually using TikTok to spy on India, Indians were encouraged to buy “Made in India” products instead.

In reality, the ban probably had more to do with geopolitics than cyber security. Earlier that month, a skirmish between India and China in the Galwan Valley resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers. The battle, fought with sticks and clubs, was the first fatal altercation between the two countries since 1975 — although the two nations have long disputed the location of the Himalayan border.

“The ban was one of many steps that the Indian government took in response to the Galwan clashes,” says Manoj Kewalramani, a fellow of Chinese Studies at The Takshashila Institution. “Over 500 Chinese apps have reportedly been banned since
 In general, the India-China relationship has remained deeply strained because of the continued stand-off in eastern Ladakh and broader geo-strategic rivalry. TikTok really has nothing to do with this.”

Yet even if cybersecurity was a real problem, banning an app was not necessarily the solution. “Improving cybersecurity and cyber-governance as a whole requires regulation to address a host of issues, from disinformation to the role of intermediaries and data protection rules,” says Kewalramani. “I don’t think one can discuss it simply in the context of one app
 Chinese propaganda and influence operations are multi-faceted and can leverage any platform that is accessible in an open society, such as Twitter and Facebook. What is needed is broader and better governance rather than simply banning a platform.”

By the time of the ban, TikTok had become a cultural phenomenon, nurturing a new generation of content creators from poorer rural areas. Indians posted dance videos from farm fields, construction workers filmed the process of bricklaying, and housewives expressed their personalities on the app. Based on the premise that all a user needs is good content, TikTok was able to cut through class and caste barriers. “The best thing about TikTok was that it didn’t matter who you are and where you are from — if your content is good then you’d go viral,” says Sharma. “Even if you’re sitting in a small village, TikTok will show it to the whole world.”

All this was possible because TikTok had fashioned a bespoke experience for the Indian market. It focused heavily on local language content in India, as well as targeting lesser-known regional influencers such as Sharma. “Every three months, [TikTok’s Chinese managers] would hit the streets and conduct user surveys, in Madurai, Trichy and other places,” said Kumar, a former ByteDance employee. The rise of TikTok also came at a time when India had one of the cheapest internets in the world thanks to Mukesh Ambani’s telecom network Reliance Jio, which meant that Indians from all over the country could dream of becoming TikTok stars.  

“Even if you’re sitting in a small village, TikTok will show it to the whole world.” 

“With approximately 200 million users at the time it was blocked, TikTok in India had acquired a distinct character,” says Prateek Waghre, executive director at Internet Freedom Foundation. Not only did it allow rural and small-town Indian creators to develop a global audience, but the vast audience in India also meant that foreign creators began catering to Indians, creating a “unique cultural exchange”.

When the ban severed this relationship, copycat companies raced to fill the void. The market was soon flooded with TikTok replicas: of the top 100 social apps in the Google Play Store, at least 13 were clones. Four months after the ban, Sharma received calls from the multiple alternatives including short video apps such as Josh, MX Takatak and Moj, the last of which was launched within days of the TikTok crackdown. Sharma chose to work with Moj, where his following eventually grew to more than 8 million.

A few months later, Instagram launched Reels and YouTube came out with Shorts, offering creators more options to choose from. But this in turn split creators and users across a wide range of platforms. “The resulting fragmentation — with a split between global and Indian audiences, as well as splintering of domestic audiences across different apps — meant the cross-cultural networks effectively dissipated,” said Waghre. “Since then, many of the domestic alternatives have either merged, pivoted or folded up, with Instagram, mainly, and YouTube, to some extent, emerging as winners.” In the end, the big American companies defeated the smaller Indian ones.

Almost four years later, the US has reached the same crossroads. Last month, President Joe Biden signed a bill forcing TikTok to find a new US owner within a year or reckon with a ban. TikTok is gearing up for a fight, saying the law is unconstitutional. Though its executives insist that it is not a security threat, the Biden administration is concerned that Beijing can demand US user data from ByteDance under Chinese national security law.

In response, TikTok claims the ban violates the First Amendment rights of 170 million US users. And some US academics agree that it is not the appropriate response to a potential national security threat. “Congress should be concerned about platforms’ collection of Americans’ data, but this ban is not a solution,” says Nadine Farid Johnson, a policy director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “China and other foreign adversaries will still be able to purchase Americans’ sensitive data from data brokers on the open market. And they could still engage in disinformation campaigns using American-owned platforms. Lawmakers should be addressing the real problem, not undermining the First Amendment.”

Many are also concerned that a ban or forced sale of TikTok could escalate geopolitical tensions between the US and China. “Such actions may be perceived as aggressive moves in the broader context of economic competition and strategic rivalry,” says Justin Miller, a professor at the School of Cyber Studies at the University of Tulsa. He suggested that this could “trigger a tit-for-tat cycle of sanctions or restrictions” that could end up affecting other countries aligned with either side. Joe Biden may think he’s outsmarting Beijing — but his own country could turn out to be the victim.


Varsha Bansal is a technology journalist based in Bangalore, India.

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justin davis
justin davis
17 days ago

Shilling for the CCP.. no thanks!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
17 days ago

The Chinese Communists have a saying: “All your data are belong to us.”

This is what ‘Communism’ means. No private property. You and what you own belongs to the state. Intellectual property, personal data, inventions – everything belongs to the government.

They have a euphemism for it: ‘Sharing Technology’. Essentially, if YOU invent it, write it, or develop it – then THEY have a right to take it, reproduce it at a 1/10th of the cost (without paying for its development process), and ultimately put you out of business.

Let the wise hear this and take warning ….

Martin M
Martin M
17 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

The Chinese Communists have a saying: “All your data are belong to us.”
That’s not even good English! No wonder people don’t like Communists!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
16 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Even if you’re not using their tools. They’ll just lift images created by American artists, for instance, and reproduce them on t-shirts and beach towels, etc., without permission or second rights payment. Not a d*mn thing we can do about it.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago

Make no mistake this is 100 percent about geopolitics and not a bit about security. Everyone knows it, the voters, Tiktok users, the courts, and everyone else except apparently idealistic journalists. Further, if this goes to the Supreme Court, tiktok will almost certainly lose, because the court has traditionally given Congress, the President, and the government in general significant leeway to bend the rules and impinge on individual freeedoms for the sake of national security. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. FDR put Japanese Americans in camps. The court allowed both, broadly interpreting the government’s duty to protect the people from foreign threats as sufficient justification for some restrictions on individual rights. After 9/11, there were several more rulings broadly extending the government’s authority to surveil its own people to some extent.

Tiktok management has to know this as well. By vowing to fight this in court, tiktok is hoping to delay the process and put the issue out in the court of public opinion in an election year. I can only surmise they think they might have a chance Trump will oppose the ban as a ploy to appeal to younger voters. He very well might but Trump’s mercurial nature and inconsistent positions are both a curse and blessing. He could easily change his mind after getting re-elected since he won’t face the voters again and/or use a tiktok ban as a stick to threaten the the Chinese with later.

I can’t help but think it’s only a matter of time before tiktok is banned. Even if they survive the current threat, the US/China conflict isn’t going away and they are bound to be a casualty sooner or later. All their efforts will only delay the inevitable.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
17 days ago

I find it strange that the author ( seemingly of Indian origin) plays with such a straight bat for CCP.
Is she unaware of what the CCP threatened in 2013 when large parts of Bombay( Mumbai) were taken out by a massive power outage and CCP boasted this is just a small sign of what they could do? That they had full data dumps of all sensitive infrastructure?
Anyday it is better for the average Indian to use non CCP local variants.
And she is sorely wrong about the loss of the small town creators. I know and subscribe to several Hindi and other vernacular Indian content creators on the platforms she mentions. These are easily available to all global audiences.
Disappointed again that UH features dubious authors, with dubious parallels and who so clearly want to be part of a CCP globosphere!

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
16 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

The CCP’s international influence operations are extensive and pervasive. It’s like everything else. The CCP can grant a lot of favors for businesses and individuals that toe the line in terms of lucrative arrangements to serve the Chinese market. In the USA, the NBA and many of its players, including LeBron James, went to bat for the CCP a few years ago when one NBA executive made a generic comment supporting democracy in Hong Kong, something not unlike millions of other Americans supporting similar causes all over the world. The row lasted months and had the NBA management twisting themselves in knots to try to placate the Chinese government without incurring too much wrath from American voters and politicians. They failed on both counts. This journalist may well be getting paid to write English language articles for one of the CCP’s mouthpiece publications like the global times or, more recently, the SCMP which was based out of Hong Kong and used to be fairly neutral.
There are similar stories all the time. Doing business with China comes with strings attached, strings that can be pulled at any time by the CCP to influence and control foreign actors. There is no separation of government and private industry. Anything and anyone doing business in China is utterly at the mercy of the CCP, who can steal their technology, steal their data, demand conformity on any issue, and revoke their ability to do business at any time, costing their organization millions. There are no rules and no boundaries. This is what it means to do business with a totalitarian government. It’s long past time to treat the CCP as the multidimensional threat they are. It will end up costing untold billions of dollars to phase China out of the American economy, but it has to be done.
India sensibly decided to bite the bullet earlier than others and closely regulate their economic relations with China. The Modi government seems to understand the basic principle that one way or another, you have to pay the piper. Dealing business with a villain comes with unavoidable risks. The relationship has to be managed with an eye towards security and defense. Credit the Indian government for getting out front on this issue. Tiktok isn’t magic. It’s a service that can be easily duplicated by others and I doubt most Indians other than the handful who used it to make careers truly miss it, and even those don’t seem to have been permanently crippled, just temporarily inconvenienced by having to find a new outlet.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
16 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Most sections of the Indian mainstream media have loyalists of the Communist party of India( which still owes allegiance to Beijing) in charge. The situation is also serious as the dynast who leads Congress follows in his great grandfather’s footsteps in his soft focus support of CCP. At present the state where this journalist is based is ruled by Congress, which incidentally also signed an MOU with CCP in 2008.
As you point out it’s essentially a national security issue.
This journalist obviously is an ” influencer” and I am curious why she should be given a place on UH.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
16 days ago

So Veer Sharma will have to get another job, just like anybody else. Relying on social media fame for one’s livelihood is a very stupid life plan.

ralph bell
ralph bell
16 days ago

America only peddles the free market idea when it benefits itself. They are completely ruthless in trade and this will be another example to stamp out competition. Albeit one that may have negative medium term consequences as with the microchip ban noted elsewhere on Unherd today.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
16 days ago

Joe Biden may think he’s outsmarting Beijing — but his own country could turn out to be the victim.
The first part of the sentence is a joke; Joe’s not outsmarting anyone. The second part is his administration’s MO. Most everything else has worked to the detriment of Americans, why not this move.
Beyond that, I have a difficult time taking the pearl-clutching in Congress at face value given that a majority of that body approved the ongoing warrantless surveillance of American citizens.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
16 days ago

It’s all pretty sick. Counter to classic liberalism.

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago

I doubt you will find a lot of “classic liberalism” in China.

Kelly Madden
Kelly Madden
16 days ago

“Many are also concerned that a ban or forced sale of TikTok could escalate geopolitical tensions between the US and China.”

Of all the things that could escalate tensions… this is one of them, maybe. But not a very important one.

(And maybe China should attend to the deliberately hostile things it’s doing, instead? I voted against Trump, twice. Rethinking that. He didn’t put up with this shit.)

G M
G M
16 days ago

TikTok is based in/owned by a Chinese-based firm and in China all companies are effectively under the control of the Chinese Communist party.
Any ‘safety’ agreement signed by TikTok/Bytedance will be ignored.

There is a difference between companies based in democracies with rule of law and those based in non-democratic countries where companies must do what the government tells it to do.

Liam F
Liam F
16 days ago

We thought by admitting China to the World Trade Organisation it would gradually adopt international norms of transparency and reduce corruption. Instead China ended up corrupting us.